I am a Burmese exile taking a near-permanent refuge in New York and Sydney. Here are my essays about Burma and anything else I feel like writing about. And posting the articles I like from selected sites. Bridging Burma to the world this Blog is more of a Politically-Oriented Literary Blog than a Plain News Blog or a Sophisticated Thoughts Blog.
Meet the American Supporting Myanmar's
Controversial Pro-Buddhist 969 movement.
He's a self-proclaimed "white
American national" who has no family connections to Myanmar and has never
visited the country. He's not an expert on its politics either, he tells me --
which becomes clear later in our conversation when he draws a blank on the name
of Aung San Suu Kyi, likely the most famous Burmese person alive today, whom he
calls a "prime minister candidate" (she's actually planning on
staging a run for the presidency).
But something about the 969 movement --
the controversial pro-Buddhist campaign that many hold responsible for the
violence that has racked Myanmar in recent months -- has captured the
imagination of this man.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area,
working his day job in the "technology sector," he has taken it upon
himself in his spare time to set up both a website -- 969Movement.org -- and a
Twitter account devoted to defending the movement in the face of what he says
is widespread misinformation.
In a Skype interview with Foreign
Policy on Wednesday, he declined to give his name, saying "I still have
some safety concerns about being involved in all this."
"Where I see myself ... is
promoting the values and the intention of the 969 movement to the
English-speaking world," he says. "To a more globalized
The 969 movement is often described in
news coverage as a nationalist, anti-Muslim organization. It encourages Burmese
Buddhists to patronize Buddhist shops -- specifically shops bearing
969-distributed stickers -- and to shun interfaith marriage.
It's also well known for the vehemence
of its leaders' rhetoric: "You can be full of kindness and love, but you
cannot sleep next to a mad dog," U Wirathu, the charismatic monk often
described as the face of the movement, has reportedly said about Muslims.
It's the kind of divisive rhetoric that
many argue has contributed to the sectarian clashes and mob violence that has
rocked Myanmar over the past year, killing hundreds, displacing thousands and
destroying hundreds of acres of property. Some claim that the movement is receiving
tacit backing from the state.
But the Californian is skeptical of the
969 movement's role in this violence. Those doing the translating for Western
media organizations aren't neutral observers, he says, but rather people with
an anti-969 agenda. What he sees in 969 are the seeds of a global pro-Buddhist
movement that can give Buddhism and its values a collective voice.
"What Buddhists need today, in the
21st century is a united message and presence that exists in the public
sphere," he says. Just as there have been efforts to build pan-Arabism, he
says, "Buddhists should have a nation too."
The message that Buddhists are under
threat and need to stand up for themselves has found resonance in other
Buddhist countries in South and Southeast Asia, but it's unusual to find an
American pushing for a movement toward a more political Buddhism and supporting
a campaign that's been widely criticized outside of Myanmar.
(His connections to the 969 movement,
it should be noted, are only ideological -- at least so far. He's reached out
to the leadership in Myanmar for their blessing, but has yet to hear back, he
says.) In addition to supporting the 969 movement, he's also the founder of a
website called BuddhistDefenseLeague.org.
The man says he was raised in a Christian
family, but developed an interest in Buddhism as a teenager. He began
practicing more seriously a few years ago, he says, and "the peace ...
it's given me -- I take it very seriously." He found videos of Wirathu on
YouTube, and found that the monk appealed to him. "Even as a small man, he
appears to have a great deal of charisma.... I look forward to meeting him one
He says he was prompted to start his
website and Twitter account in response to a controversial Time magazine issue
that put Wirathu on the cover, above the headline, "The Face of Buddhist
"It was one-sided, disrespectful
of my religious beliefs. I thought, I could do something about this."
His site includes a section that seeks
to dispel 969 "myths" ("There have been many attacks against
Buddhists in Myanmar that have gone unreported in the Western media. Myanmar,
like many other countries in the world, has a long history of Islamic
terrorists killing, raping, and destroying.") and short blog posts on why,
for example, it's important to shop at Buddhist stores to support monks
("By displaying a sticker or poster, a business and home could indicate
that it was owned by a Buddhist and that they supported the 969 values of
Buddhism. For the first time Buddhists in Myanmar were able to recognize who
their money was supporting").
His Twitter feed is a steady stream of
debate with those who are offended by his backing of an organization they
consider hateful, or who accuse him of making misleading characterizations of
"To re-frame '969' as a peaceful
push for getting Buddhist voices heard ... is a complete distortion,"
Maung Zarni, a Burmese dissident in exile who is currently a fellow at the
London School of Economics, said in an email to Foreign Policy. The creator of
969Movement.org "is not really in touch with the extremely troubling and
ugly ideological and material impact of the 969 [movement] as it is understood
and framed by its fast-growing adherents."
The website has only been up for about
two weeks; the Twitter account has just a few dozen followers. But the creator
says he's already received emails from supporters -- mainly in Southeast Asia,
though also a few Buddhists in the United States.
Popular Nationalist-Buddhist 969 Movement in Burma.
He's been in talks with another
Buddhist website about producing a pro-969 magazine, and he hopes to win over
more supporters in the United States by distributing the kinds of stickers that
Buddhists in Myanmar place on their cars, motorcycles, and store windows. His
plans eventually include founding a non-profit. Only then, he says, will he
reveal his identity.
He doesn't expect that it will be easy
to find support in the United States. "Most Western Buddhists believe what
they read in the Western media, and will not be supportive of it," he
But the time has come, he says, for
Buddhists around the world to take a stand on behalf of their religion and
"I feel like we're at an important
threshold right now," he says. "Either we stand up, as Buddhists, and
accept these criticisms, of being divisive, and setting ourselves apart --
because it's true, we are not like other people, we have different values and
different traditions" -- or Buddhism may "lose the fight."
"Bullies like to pick on an easy
target," he said. "That might not be politically correct for the
Dalai Lama to hear."